It’s never easy to see an old girlfriend out and about with her new guy. Now imagine that she looks better, acts smarter, and is just in general a happier person then she was before. CORE, if they even still exist, was never good enough for Lara; she was just using them to get attention, and perhaps to pay for a few enhancements. Crystal Dynamics, on the other hand, knows how to treat a lady with big guns: with respect, bump mapping, tight pants and sensibly spaced sequels. Tomb Raider: Underworld is a fitting follow-up to 2006’s Legend. It manages to build on the previous title instead of detracting from it, like the all of the PS1 and PS2 games did. There are missteps, but there are also tombs that are indeed raided, and that is exactly what I was looking for.
The successful Tomb Raider games (and there have not been many of them) are necessarily formulaic. Lara needs to get from one place to another, but there is no easy way to do it without falling to death or being crushed by giant boulders, and it is the player’s job to get her there. Oh, and this should take place mostly in tombs. It’s estrogen-heavy Indiana Jones, and Underworld sticks very close to the proven patterns; it is only when it veers from them that it stumbles. There are a few ill-advised and unnecessary vehicle levels, and the combat is just as bad, if not worse than it has been in the past, but these are just temporary distractions. The focus here is on subterranean parkour; nothing new, but polished up and presented so well that any sense of déjà vu is washed away.
Tomb Raider games have never been known for their story; CORE relied entirely on boobs and a bad camera for years, and each game sold incrementally less than the one before. Even teenage boys require more than that; the fact that most porn has dialogue proves it well enough. Underworld provides a shocking amount of continuity, though I would expect nothing less from the house that built the best parts of the Legacy of Kain series. The tale of old gods and a search for dead parents is, again, nothing new, but it is interesting and un-intrusive at the same time. Lara is not a static character, nor is she a perfect one; the fact that she has personality at all is a huge step over the old Lara. Again, nothing new here, but quality nonetheless.
For me, the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games have been the equivalent of gamer comfort food. It is like revisiting my younger, less jaded gaming days and finding things better than I remember them being. Underworld is not perfect; there are camera issues that force blind jumps and shooting things is more a chore than anything else, but what it does right it does very, very well. Tomb Raider started a genre; without it, there would be no Prince of Persia or Uncharted, and Underworld stands up to its virtual grandchildren admirably. I am not ashamed to admit that I like Lara again; she has been reborn after slumming it up with Army Men games and virtual pin-up shoots for years. Tomb Raider: Underworld is a good sequel, and if I have to wait another two years for the third game instead of six months for a repackaging of the old game with new skimpy outfits, that’s okay.